Updating Dante’s Inferno
How to perform a makeover on one of literature’s former gems
Let’s face it, Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia has had a good run. Longer than Agatha Christie’s execrable The Mousetrap, longer than Andrew Loyd Webber’s foremost crime against human decency Cats, and longer than the King James Bible. But in recent years it’s not aged well and thus it is somewhat overdue for what in the unrelenting vulgarity of modern parlance would be termed “a makeover.”
As those of us who’ve read the relevant Wikipedia entry will know, the Divina Commedia is a medieval poem written in Tuscan dialect and shaped by the Roman Catholic version of Christian mythology, which is a misshapen mashup of the myths that preceded it both on the rather unkempt Judaic side of the fence and on the well-tended Greco-Roman lawn opposite. There are, as the cognoscenti are well aware, nine circles of damnation within which at the very center is nestled Christianity’s slanderous misrepresentation of Pan/Bacchus, now appellated Lucifer/the Devil/Satan etc.
In the first third of his epic poem, which he commenced in 1308 and completed just before his death in 1321, Dante travels through each circle in turn, descending ever further into the darkness of the underworld.
Let us now take the opportunity to bring this somewhat dusty and time-worn tale up to date, beginning with the first circle of purgatory: the telephone system auto-attendant.
The First Circle
Dante pulls a new smartphone from his breeches pocket and dials the Customer Service number for Purgatory, hoping to speak to a representative to see if they can arrange for the thermostat to be turned down just a little. The number rings three times, and then the following message is heard:
“For the number One, please press one. If you’d like to press Two, press two. For those interested in the number Three, please press three. For those who’d like to hear instructions regarding how to press the number Four, please press four. For anyone who thinks pressing Five will help them, press five. To return to this exact same menu, press Zero at any time.”
Somewhat disillusioned by his first interaction with the genius of Purgatory, Dante accepts that he must stumble forward, progressing ever deeper into the steamy bowels of a rather unconvincing mythological structure.
The Second Circle
Soon, through the sulphorous smoke issuing forth theatrically from cracks in the walls, he perceives the adumbration of a wraith. As he closes upon the vision he sees that it is the Personification of Political Correctness, torn with anxiety lest it should be discovered to be insufficiently Correct. For it is the very nature of this condition that nothing shall ever be sufficient and new requirements shall each day emerge to chastise one for past actions which at the time were accepted as normal but which today are considered to be the gravest of sins.
Dante sees the wraith is wearing hemp sandals, a tattered dress made from some sort of recycled fabric upon which is emblazoned Meat Is Murder, and has across its mouth a cotton facemask bearing the legend #BlackLivesMatterForMeToo. To complete its ensemble, the wraith wears a floppy straw hat encircled by a ribbon bearing the legend Don’t Trigger Me, I’m Woke.
As Dante attempts to approach, the wraith screams a semi-intelligible rant about responsible social distancing and begins to hurl lumps of tofu in his direction. Fortunately for Dante, the wraith has been fatally weakened by anemia and by having a nervous system crippled through lack of vitamin B12. Thus the tofu falls limply onto the wraith’s own feet. The unhappy creature begins to weep, its sorrow made more bitter by the belief that its own tears are micro-aggressions against its cheeks and the certainty that there are no Safe Spaces in hell.
Dante shakes his head sadly and commences his descent toward the Third Circle.
The Third Circle
He spends considerable time attempting to pass through a maze-like structure upon the walls of which are plastered thousands of inspirational management posters (sample: Better the Devil You Know! illustrated with a smiley emoticon bearing two cute red horns, and if you don’t like that then how about The Customer Is Always Wrought! illustrated with a picture of a man being torn apart by a ravenous lion).
Finally he reaches a large conference room in which fifty-seven thousand Human Resource specialists are holding a meeting, the purpose of which is to:
“Re-uplifterize our ongoing organizational reculturation to empower the powerless to state powerfully their power-deficiencies in a spirit of equality underfoot, while focusing on the eighty-three core values and the six-hundred-and-forty-one mission-critical goals to be pursued by means of our sixty-two-hundred and twelve major strategic objectives, each one of which is a top priority to which we’ll all give 136%! Let’s make this a better worse place by working individually together!”
As Dante passes he sees the presenter pause meaningfully as slide 6,298,089 of the Best Ever PowerPoint Presentation In The Underworld is displayed on a blood-red screen. At the bottom of the slide lurks the inspirational slogan adopted for the meeting: Bacteria Know Culture Is Important, And Because They’re Smarter Than Us, Let’s Learn From Their Wisdom!
With foreboding pressing ever more firmly on his heart, Dante continues his journey. Surely, he thinks, these things must all be clever metaphors for the human condition and not mere examples of everyday folly? Doubts, however, assail him as he remembers the many years spent on Earth among exemplars of his own kind. He wants to quicken his pace but gathering depression leadens his feet.
The Fourth Circle
Some time later, when precisely Dante knows not because the concept of time has little meaning in such a place, he finds himself in a nondescript waiting room in which magazine racks are filled with publications such as Gum Chewer’s Weekly, Parenting With Cake, and 101 Things To Do With Matchsticks. All the magazines are at least 28 years out-of-date and the covers are faded. Not knowing what magazines are, nor knowing what such a thing as a matchstick may be, Dante focuses his attention on the human occupants of the room.
More than twenty thousand glum and anxious people sit in chairs all around, each one near their own nondescript door, waiting. Dante sees that each door has upon it a small plaque. He reads the nearest ones.
Deborah Fearful, Sex Addiction Therapist
David Donut, Eating Addiction Therapist
Diane Sloth, Exercise Addiction Therapist
Donald Woke, Sleep Addiction Therapist
Denise Twelvestep, Addiction Addiction Therapist
One of the doors opens and Dante sees a slender woman emerge into the doorway. The woman half-turns and says to the therapist who is seated in a distant corner of the room, “But I’m perfectly normal.”
“Precisely,” Dante hears the therapist respond, “you have Normalcy Addiction.”
Unwilling to learn more of this particular circle of damnation and fearful of being charged by the fifty-minute hour, Dante hurries on.
The Fifth Circle
Much later, Dante stumbles into a large wooden paneled room. At the head of the room an impressively ancient man sits enrobed in scarlet with a peculiar white wig perched unrealistically upon his pate. Facing the ancient, who sits higher than everyone else in the room and is positioned behind an impressively large wooden desk, two fractionally less ancient people, one male and one female, attired in black robes but sporting the same risible wigs, make battle with long words neither of them seems fully to comprehend.
A small distance behind the berobed linguistic pugilists sit on one side a worn-down looking man, on the other side an equally exhausted looking woman. Between them a small child sobs ceaselessly.
Intrigued by the incomprehensible spectacle, Dante seats himself in one of the vacant chairs some way behind and tries to understand what is happening.
Slowly, over the course of many tedious hours, Dante begins to grasp the essence of the situation. He is aided in his comprehension by the fact that the world he recently left behind has its own share of lawyers, and despite the differences in garments and in jargon, it is evident that the worthy practice of Law continues apace here in this fifth circle of hell. Dante considers this to be somewhat appropriate under the circumstances.
Eventually, after the passing of what seems to be several eons of disputation, the judge delivers his ruling in a voice dry and crackling from age, his eyes appearing to pop from his head as he with evident relish declaims his verdict.
“Mrs Giordano, your lawyer has succeeded in painting the character and deeds of your former husband in such a dark and unwholesome light as to render me certain that he is not fit to assume custody of your child.”
At this, the worn and frail woman begins to weep with relief.
The judge however continues, “and Mr Giordano, your lawyer has succeeded in painting the character and deeds of your former wife in such a dark and unwholesome light as to render me certain that she is not fit to assume custody of your child.”
Now both the parents, ashen-faced and trembling, stare open-mouthed at the judge.
“Therefore it is my ruling and the irrevocable judgement of this court that your child shall be taken from you and given to therapists to raise as their own. May god have mercy on her soul.”
Both parents begin to wail and the child screams with terror. Dante rises and hurries from the courtroom, wishing to spare himself anything further that may pass in this awful place of torment.
As he walks, Dante feels both his spirit and his body grow yet heavier. Each step is now a major effort and he is filled with trepidation, knowing that the further he descends the worse will be the scenes that he must witness.
The Sixth Circle
After an incalculable time, Dante arrives at a huge cavern filled with men and women sitting at desks. Each wears a headset and each is staring at a blank screen.
“I’m just doing my job,” says one.
“It’s not my fault,” another says without a trace of conviction in her voice, “I just do what they tell me to do.”
“Transferring you now,” says one, pressing the Call Disconnect button a moment later.
“I’ll put you on hold for a moment,” says a fourth.
“I don’t see any record in the system,” says a fifth, his eyes closed as he leans back in his cut-price bulk-purchased task chair.
“Are you sure you filed form DF-313 before you filed form DH-431?”
“If I find anything, I’ll call you back,” says another, at which hundreds of thousands of these soulless human-looking creatures snort with laughter.
“You didn’t tick the box to indicate you didn’t know which box to tick,” one woman declaims while gazing lustfully at the remnants of a slice of cake next to her keyboard, “so your claim has been disallowed.”
Moving slug-like between the uncountable numbers seated at desks move a similar number of dull-eyed people carrying in their hands sheets of paper which they deposit on the nearest desk. Immediately, another of their number picks up the sheet of paper and takes it to a different desk from which it is again immediately removed, doomed to circulate in a never-ending flow as one enormous example of utterly pointless Brownian motion.
Dante stares unbelieving at the scene before him. The room stretches off into infinity, filled with people seated and people shuffling, a cacophony of voices all denying responsibility and all filled with the tedium of unlived lives. Automata in human form, empty and without meaning.
Dante shudders. This, surely, must be the very worst sight to which his eyes will be exposed. And yet, even as he thinks it, in his heart he knows this must be only a waypoint along the way to greater horrors.
Forcing himself onward and downward, Dante feels his soul suffocating under a heavy load of dread. Harry Potter had companions, he thinks to himself. Why do I lack such support? Surely on such a journey as this I should be accompanied. He begins to think of what such ideal companions would be like. Human reason would be a boon, he thinks, but all too soon the inevitable ripost forms itself within his brain: there is no such thing.
What about someone who could think about all the things I’m seeing and pull meaning from them? he wonders. But as he mentally retraces his steps it becomes apparent there is likely no deep meaning. What about the comfort of religion? Surely that, above all else, would sustain me here?
And as if by the purest serendipity, Dante begins to hear the sound of bells in the distance, accompanied by a low-pitched chanting. Eager for succor, he does his best to hurry his steps forward.
The Seventh Circle
As he hastens toward the sound of the bells, Dante sees a corpulent friar chewing on a leg of roast venison, ignoring entirely the starving children scattered around his feet. Then he sees a Summoner and a Pardoner hard at work, selling indulgences and pardons. Some are being purchased by wealthy reprobates while others are handed to women dressed in rags in exchange for their last scraps of food.
Further along, Dante watches as a group of lavishly-dressed men slowly skin alive a man tied to a wooden table. As he screams, the men in robes chant what Dante recognizes as the liturgy. Nearly, a priest reads a lesson in Latin while uncomprehending villagers try not to look bored.
A group of wizened old nuns stand around a young girl, beating her with rulers and sticks, telling her how wicked she is and how Jesus cannot bear to look at her because of her laziness and her slovenliness and her many other sins too black to speak of. The girl, who is perhaps five years old, is clearly terrified. Dante sees the dark enjoyment glittering in the dead eyes of the nuns as they take their revenge upon the helpless child for all the long lonely years of deprivation they resent so very deeply.
Now Dante sees two priests holding a small naked boy face down on the ground, one taking his turn while the second waits. In the distance another priest exhorts a crowd to burn all the books they can lay their hands on, and alongside the pyre of books also burns an old woman tied to a wooden stake. Hungrily, another crowd eagerly watches her writhing as her flesh catches fire and listens with evident relish to her screams of agony.
The phrase the comforts of religion echoes in Dante’s mind as he stumbles in his haste to be done with these scenes. Unfortunately, no matter how quickly he forces his leaden feet to move, there appears to him a seemingly endless procession of such events, all overseen by self-satisfied clergy in whose minds doubt has never once been permitted to linger for more than a moment before being banished with some banal expostulation.
The Eighth Circle
As Dante walks he feels his feet sinking deeper and deeper into mire. The stench of corruption fills his nostrils and his stomach churns in queasy motion. Rats scurry around underfoot, each seeking egress from what lies ahead. Even cockroaches look for a path by means of which to escape the horrors of this doomed place.
As the last vestiges of hope sputter and die within his extinguished heart, Dante knows he must press on. And so it is that eventually he comes upon a vast crowd, all cheering and thrusting their fists into the air. Each individual within the great mob is focused on some distant point that has entirely captured their attention and indeed their very essence. Dante strains his eyes and finally is able to discern at the furthest reach of sight the figure of a man standing upon a platform and gesticulating with great fervor.
It takes him many long hours but eventually Dante is able to force progress through the great mass of bodies sufficient to reach a point where he can see and hear clearly the orator who has so readily captivated every single person in this gathering, which numbers at the very least tens of millions of lost souls. Despite the great number of people assembled, however, each one appears to all intents and purposes identical: their eyes are wide yet utterly vacant; their mouths are open and spittle flecks the corners of their lips; their fleshy bulks wobble and pulse; and nowhere can be seen even the vaguest semblance of independent thought. Each one holds in their hand a small paper flag upon which is emblazoned an obscure symbol, and each waves this tiny flag with the fervor of the true believer, eager to show their affiliation with the man to whom they have given themselves irrevocably.
The man who commands such abject subservient adoration, however, seems to Dante to be nothing but a blustering buffoon whose febrile gestures and fatuous expostulations in no way merit the adulation of the millions prostrating themselves before him. His words have no meaning, his claims are self-evidently empty of all merit, and to Dante it seems that only those suffering from irreparable brain damage or severe mental retardation would take him seriously for even a fraction of a second. And yet here he is, commanding the absolute unquestioning loyalty of countless millions.
Dante attempts to make inquiries regarding the man’s status, in order to ascertain why such a person should be able to induce hysterical adoration in so many.
“He says what he thinks,” one vacant-eyed woman tells him.
“We need someone to stand up for what’s right,” says an obese bald man next to her.
“It’s about time someone started putting those people back in their place,” says another.
“This is our world,” shrieks a portly middle-aged woman with platinum-bleached hair and an enormous pair of clearly artificial mammaries, “and those people should go back where they came from!”
“Everyone will have jobs!” cries the fat man on the podium, his absurd hair blowing in the wind despite the evidence of huge quantities of hairspray utilized in a vain attempt to keep it in check. “Every one of you, the people who deserve it, will get all the money you want!”
The crowd roars its approbation and the grinning clown on stage smirks as he raises his hands in triumph. “Cut your legs off so you can all run faster!” he shouts, and the crowd cheers wildly. “Close your eyes so you can see better!” he shrieks, and the crowd shrieks back joyously.
“Smash everything to protect what you care about!” the man proclaims as his chin wobbles and quivers beneath his weak pouting lips.
The crowd roars again. It’s an atavistic noise, like an animal looking for something small and helpless it can tear apart for the pure pleasure of it.
“Vote for me, vote for me, vote for me!” the man cries out in a climax of pleasure.
Women in the throng begin to palpitate and obese men sweat joyously as their blood pressure soars far beyond any healthy bound.
Dante can think of no time during his Earthly existence when such a spectacle was known. Millions of people, every one of them perfectly mindless, utterly in thrall to nothing other than a blatantly egregious moron. Surely, he thinks, this could never truly occur among the living? There must be some derangement of the human soul that occurs only after death, such that it causes a complete cessation of all conscious activity? For the man on the podium is no Prince or similar titled ruler whose realm passes to him via the mechanism of inheritance. Nor is he a man whose deeds have elevated him and earned him the respect of his fellows. He is nothing but an infantile halfwit, an inflated bag of human pus, telling the most absurd lies and making the most blatantly impossible promises. Surely no living human would ever fall for such shallow and obvious fraud?
As Dante hurries away he hears the crowd chant, Do-ris! Do-ris! Do-ris! in an ecstasy of self-abnegation. Even though he moves as rapidly as his weary legs will carry him, the sound of the chanting continues to poison his ears for what feels to him like many long days.
Very gradually, so gradually as to be at first imperceptible, the rhythmic chanting gives way to an equally rhythmic thumping. Dante, his spirit deeply depressed by all that he has so far witnessed, walks wearily on with much foreboding. The dull sound of thumping grows ever louder.
The Ninth Circle
Eventually the source of the noise is revealed to Dante’s eyes: thousands upon thousands of men pounding their fists upon closed leather-bound books which, upon inspection, are revealed as versions of the Christian bible. Each man thumps his own copy with manly vigor, eager to demonstrate his mastery of the meaning within; albeit a meaning he knows but very imperfectly due to the simple reason of rarely if ever having perused its contents.
In addition to their unrelenting assaults upon the hapless books, many of the men are engaging with medium-sized snakes as proof of their holy power. Others are encouraging their congregations to babble unintelligibly under the delusion that such meaningless noises are signs from their deity, though signs of what, no one assembled appears to know. Yet others eagerly thrust their hands into the pockets and wallets of those around them, pulling out for themselves whatever treasures they can find.
As with the spectacle of the blustering politician, the same empty-eyed mass fervor is here too. People sporadically shout Amen! and Halleluiah and Praise the Lord! for no reason that Dante is able to discern. He sees how many, apparently bone-thin from starvation, hand their meager rations to obese pastors and watch happily as the recipient gulps everything down before demanding more and more and more.
Strangely, for perhaps the first time since embarking on his journey, Dante feels he understands the worldview of these people. They know nothing of the scientific discoveries Dante has encountered since entering the afterlife; they are utterly unaware of even the most rudimentary facts. Their ideas, if such an elevated term may be given to what is in reality nothing more than a confused heap of misunderstood child’s stories, would be comprehensible to Dante’s contemporaries back in the land of the living. To all intents and purposes the people before him exist in the medieval world Dante himself occupied until recently and were it not for the fact that nearly all of them are morbidly obese, Dante could imagine them wearing garments of his own time and coexisting with his contemporaries without any difficulty.
As he makes his way through the assembled throng he overhears many comments about the desirability of keeping those of darker hue appropriately subjugated. Various epithets are used, which Dante interprets as common pejoratives. Oddly, he notes that a great many of those assembled here are themselves of darker hue, which seems to him very peculiar indeed.
It strikes Dante that although most of those through whom he passes with as much discretion as possible are physically large, they are stunted intellectually and morally. This curious dichotomy adds to his despondency, and he resolves to leave this ninth circle by whatever means are available to him.
His energies now nearly spent, Dante manages to drag himself forward on his hands and knees, certain that the most hideous doom awaits.
The Center Wherein Dwells Lucifer
To his surprise, the smoke and heat that have been his constant companions for so long now begin slowly to dissipate. After dragging himself forward along the stony ground for another interminable period, he could swear he can detect the faint sounds of distant music: plangent noises issuing from a harp while a pleasing melody wafts from accompanying Pan-pipes.
Not trusting his senses after so many unwelcome assaults, Dante wearily raises himself to his feet, determined to meet like a man whatever grisly fate lies in store.
Balmy air begins to caress his cheeks. Crystal-pure streams of cool water begin to run from the rocky walls on either side of the passage, which itself begins to widen as he progresses towards the innermost realm. Dante pauses to drink, thinking that if it is poison then death will spare him further miseries. But it is not poison, and quickly he feels himself refreshed, invigorated, and his spirits lifted up.
Some modest amount of time later he reaches a glade. Warm sun shines from above, the scents of wild thyme and rosemary fill the air, a stream runs burbling beside a grassy meadow in which wildflowers blossom, scattering pinks and reds and oranges and yellows in mad abandon over the deep green grass.
Dante is so engrossed in the vision before him that he is utterly startled when a voice behind him speaks.
“Oh, hello,” says the voice.
Dante turns quickly, fearful of what he may discover. But the being from whom the speech originated seems entirely unthreatening: seemingly a man of medium height, with a pleasing suntan, dressed in a nineteenth-century silk smoking jacket of deep scarlet. Were it not for the small horns protruding from his forehead and the fact that his lower half was clearly appropriated from a goat, the personage could perfectly well pass for an out-of-work thespian.
“Very pleased to be able to welcome you to my little home-away-from-home,” the creature continues. “I don’t actually get many visitors here. Most people prefer to stay in one of the nine theme parks you’ve undoubtedly passed through on your journey.”
Dante’s mouth opens but words do not come. Finally, after gathering his scattered wits, he is able to expostulate, “But, I say, aren’t you the devil?”
The devil (for indeed it is he) smiles sadly. “Yes, that’s one of the names they call me. Frankly I preferred Pan. Such a simple, short, and pleasing name. But you humans do love to elaborate and embroider. To be honest, I’ve reached the point where I’ll answer to practically anything provided it’s not Doris. Never liked the name Doris. Don’t know why, just don’t.”
Dante cannot believe his eyes and ears. “Surely, you are the prince of darkness, the evil one? I’ve seen your works. Terrible things! People suffering endlessly! Only a truly evil being could create such horrors!”
The devil gives a little shrug. “A common misperception.”
He hands Dante a glass of cool refreshing water. “Allow me to explain. Quite some time ago I thought it would be rather jolly if people had somewhere to which they could retire after dying. Somewhere they could find everything their hearts desired. Nine realms ought to do it, I thought. Spent quite a while trying to work out what each realm should be like, and then I hit on what I believed at the time to be a stroke of genius: let the people themselves shape their realms! Alas, as you’ve seen, the results have not at all been what I had hoped for.”
Dante quaffs the water and is astonished at how rapidly it reinvigorates him.
The devil takes the now-empty glass from Dante and leads him to the burbling stream that runs through the glade. “Take the weight off your feet, rest awhile.”
Dante sits, and as he reclines on the soft grass he feels a great metaphorical weight lifting off his shoulders. “What went wrong?”
The devil sighs. “What went wrong was that they did shape their realms. They simply recreated the horrors they’d constructed for themselves when they were alive.” He shakes his head. “Really, you humans! Absolutely beyond all salvation. And those nuns! I don’t mind telling you, they give me the creeps.”
Dante does his best not to remember the visions presented to him during his time in the seventh circle.
The devil, seeing Dante’s discomfort and guessing at the cause, attempts to change the subject. “Your johnny-cum-lately Christian myth calls me Lucifer, bringer-of-light, which I admit is rather zippier than Prometheus, but then you go and say I’m the prince of darkness. Um, hello? Anybody there? Anybody see the problem? Apparently not. Were I not congenitally good-tempered it would be nearly enough to make me a bit grumpy.”
As the truth begins to sink into Dante’s consciousness, he hangs his head. “So all those nine circles,” he says quietly, “aren’t supposed to be torments; they’re supposed to be heavens?”
“Got it in one,” the devil nods.
“You were trying to help us.”
“But they, we…”
For a long time Dante ponders the irony of the situation. Then he looks at the devil and asks, “But, do some at least come here and see all of this beauty? Surely I’m not the only one?”
The devil looks a little embarrassed. He fidgets and his tail flicks from side-to-side.
“Ah. Yes. Well. Um.”
Dante waits, certain that in a moment an important truth will be revealed to him. A transcendent truth. A truth that will make it all worthwhile.
The devil clears his throat. “Look, ah, actually this is frightfully tricky to explain. Don’t take it the wrong way, please. The thing is, well, the thing is: clever people don’t come here. They all know it’s absolute rot. It’s only everybody else that ends up believing there’s an afterlife. Sort of a cosmic joke, really, when you come to think about it.”
Dante frowns, puzzled by the conundrum. “I don’t understand.”
“Exactly! If you did, you wouldn’t be here.”
“But, this is all real,” Dante protests.
“Not really, no,” the devil sighs. “Just a figment of the rather stunted human imagination.”
“But that would mean,” Dante stammers, “that if I stopped believing, then…”
As everything disappears, the last thought that crosses Dante’s mind as his brain evaporates into nothingness seems to be the devil saying,